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Wednesday, July 1, 2015


The other night, our neighbor passed away. My family's neighbor, the woman who lived across the road (not street) from my parents, for as long as I can remember. Annie.

As a child in the South, I learned to call most grownups Miss or Mr. somebody--even if it was their first name. But Annie was just Annie. That's what she insisted everybody call her, whether her own age, my parents' age, or mine.

She lived all her life on one side of the road or the other, that same precious spot of earth. She and her husband, Raymond, built the house my parents bought from them, then moved just across the road. For decades afterwards, Annie liked to call our house "my house."

She was born before America entered the First World War. She was a farm girl and grew up knowing country things. She had a wonderful sense of humor, and loved to tell stories, in a voice I can always hear in my head. The time she'd been doing chores in the barn and got stuck trying to crawl under a barbed wire fence. She yelled and yelled for Raymond, who was largely deaf, a result of his years working in the box factory. With no help coming, Annie finally tore loose from the fence in desperation. When she got to the house, Raymond said, "Why woman, where's your britches at?"

She'd laugh and laugh. And, my sister tells me, she could cook a mean squirrel.

But she was also revered in the church, where she worshipped until within days of her death. She would do anything for anybody. My mother recalls that when they first moved into the house more than forty years ago, Annie came over (down to "her house") and talked at some length about what a wonderful a place it was to live, and how safe my family would be. Only at her departure did Annie turn around and say, "Now honey, you be sure to lock this door when I leave."

Raymond would do anything for anybody too. I didn't realize how true this was until our dog, who had never learned not to chase cars despite being hit by three of them, finally sustained an injury that left us no choice but to put him to sleep. We tried to get him to the car to take him to the vet in town, but it was agony. Finally--it was the country after all--Raymond agreed to bring down one of his guns and end poor Toby's suffering.

It must have hurt Raymond too. He was a hunter and guns were part of life, but he wouldn't have wanted to hurt Toby, the dog he'd fed and looked after whenever we went away. He did it for us. When Raymond died some years back, I remembered this as an example of his kindness.

I had lots of conversations with Annie over the years--she could talk for hours--but I never heard her say anything unkind about anyone. I have no idea what, or if, she thought of politics, same-sex marriage, or the Confederate flag. Last summer she met my partner, my brother's wife and baby girl, and our gay friends. The couple who just picked up their marriage license, the same day Annie died.

Not that they were introduced that way--we used our names, not labels. People were all just people to Annie, just as she was Annie to everyone.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells an inquirer that living rightly means loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. That's it. When pressed to answer "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells the story of the "Good Samaritan." Even that misnomer points to people's inherent prejudice; Jesus' listeners wouldn't have expected Samaritans to be good, since they were "other."

His point, of course, was that being a neighbor has nothing to do with who you are or whether you live next door. It has everything to do with how you treat other people.

Annie was still clear minded well into this, her 99th year on earth. Still walking among her beloved flowers. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote: "Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between."

Annie was our neighbor.